Deborah Abela is the author of fifteen novels for 8-12 year olds: the Jasper Zammit (Soccer Legend) series, which she wrote with Johnny Warren, The Remarkable Secret of Aurelie Bonhoffen and the Max Remy Superspy series which is published in over six countries around the world.
This week Jacqui Dent catches up with her about writing for a young audience, developing characters and getting unstuck.
JD: Why do you write for kids?
DA: I love it...but it started as an accident. After studying Communications at UTS, I was keen to work in adult TV drama...after a good dose of begging just about anyone I met, I was given a job by John Edwards and Sandra Levy, producers at Southern Star production house. It was a brilliant introduction to writing for TV but after my first stint, I was offered a job at Network TEN, where I worked in the script department. I worked there for a year before being offered a job as Assistant Producer/Writer of a kids' TV show. It was then I had my first taste of writing for kids and I loved it! I left the show in 2001 and have been writing kids' novels ever since.
What are three things you need to be aware of writing for a young audience?
While I was writing for Cheez TV I learnt a few very valuable tips about writing for kids.
- Look kids in the eye .... kids will know the second you are being condescending or talking down to them.
- Save the lectures for the uni students. Tell a story first, whatever kids learn or take away from your story, will follow.
- Be kid focussed - let the kids lead the plot and action!
I've been working with these pointers in my novels too and I've had lots of fun with them.
How do you judge which age group your story would suit?
Ohhh that is hard ... in fact, I've noticed in writing for kids over the last ten years, that a twelve-year-old today is very different to what a twelve-year-old wanted ten years ago. I don't usually think about age when I start writing....I just try to write an engaging story, with unique characters kids want to hang around ... the judging of the age group may well come down to your publisher.
What are three reasons kids' manuscripts get rejected by publishers?
I'm sure this differs for each publisher but over the years I have heard a few reasons, some of which are:
- They've heard it all before.
- It is too condescending to kids - a lecture rather than a story
- There is no real hook that makes the work really stand above other submissions
How do you create an authentic voice for your young characters?
I have to sit with my characters for a very long time before they begin to come to life. Peter Carey calls it an osteopathic click....that wonderful moment when your character comes to life for you. It is magic. At this point, I out my characters in a situation and I watch them act ... I hear them talk, I laugh at their jokes and feel for them when they're sad. It takes time to get to know someone and it is the same for my characters ... but also I love it when they surprise me ... when they say or do something I hadn't seen coming.
When you get stuck writing you ... ?
Go for a bike ride, pick up a book, go back to the project, go to another project, go to the fridge, try again, go for another bike ride (this is great thinking time) but as my good friend and teach Catherine Heiner says, just sit down and do it. If I stay with it, the story and work will come to life, sometimes when I'm at my most exasperated. Stay with it, believe in your work and be realistic about where it is working and where perhaps it needs a little more love and care and hard work from you. Happy writing!
Deb Abela is teaching her one-day course Writing for Kids at the Centre on Sunday 17 April.